Science Fiction Studies

#98 = Volume 33, Part 1 = March 2006

Stacey Abbott

Final Frontiers: Computer-Generated Imagery and the Science Fiction Film

“There were a lot of concerns about just what these invisibility effects would look like.… I knew they were doable, it was just a question of how we would do them—and at the time we had no clue.” Scott E. Anderson Visual Effects Supervisor on Hollow Man

The February 2005 edition of SFX magazine produced a list of the “50 Greatest Special Effects” voted upon by their readers. At least thirty of the effects listed came from films that can be categorized as science fiction, demonstrating that ever since George Méliès’s Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902; Trip to the Moon), the sf genre on film has been indelibly linked to special effects. As Geoff King has argued with respect to the contemporary blockbuster, this association with spectacle has often led to accusations of the impoverishment of narrative and depth (2). Robin Wood has described the use of special effects in such sf films as Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and E.T. (1982)as representing “the essence of Wonderland Today,” becoming ever more “dazzling, more extravagant, more luxuriously unnecessary” (166).

Recent genre theorists have attempted to rethink this dismissal of the sf film by reconsidering how the genre makes film technology its subject. As Annette Kuhn has argued, the genre is ideally suited to display technological advances and developments through its futuristic narratives. In the sf film, the narrative will often stop for the contemplation of the spectacular special effects being used to represent the depicted world. As Kuhn suggests, “since the films themselves are often about new or imagined future technologies, this must be a perfect example of the medium fitting, if not exactly being, the message” (7). Brooks Landon, in his discussion of contemporary digital effects, takes the argument further by suggesting that the medium is in fact the message and that the emphasis on the spectacle of film technology is enough to make a film science fiction regardless of its narrative content. He calls for a “revisionist discussion that would start by attempting to rethink science-fiction film in film-specific terms, opting variously for epistemologically based or image-based criteria instead of source-based or narrative based assumptions that have so far shaped most discussions of science-fiction film” (“Diegetic” 35).

Furthermore, the relationship between science fiction and special effects (FX) is often mutually dependent since the genre needs special effects to showcase its future worlds and technologies while the imaginative demands of the stories themselves have spearheaded new developments of FX technologies.1 Films from Metropolis (1927) to Star Wars (1977), from The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) to Starship Troopers (1997) have all forced FX artists to answer the question raised by Scott E. Anderson when making Hollow Man (2000): “I knew they [the effects] were doable, it was just a question of how we would do them” (qtd in Shay 108). As Michele Pierson explains, however, that period of synergy between the futuristic visions of science fiction and the futuristic quality of the new special effects is short-lived since the “phantasmagorical projections of the future often only achieve the glamour and allure of the truly novel in that brief moment before the techniques used to bring them to the cinema screen have grown too familiar” (102).                

Nowhere has this been more evident than in developments of computer-generated special effects over the last twenty-five years. Science-fiction films from Alien (1979) to The Matrix (1999) have led the way in developing computer-generated imagery (CGI) and revolutionized digital filmmaking within the American film industry, with each film presenting new challenges for the FX artists to overcome. Furthermore, while effects designers throughout the history of cinema have walked a fine line between technician and artist, magician and inventor, the increasing use of computer technology for special effects has made them seem more like modern scientists than their predecessors. Not only does the hardware and software require the highest level of computer expertise to operate, but the technicians must research, develop, and experiment with the technology in order to achieve the desired effects. In recent years, however, CGI has become increasingly familiar to audiences and domesticated by its use to produce invisible effects such as crowd scenes, color alteration, and weather effects, as well as by its use in television. In addition, new developments have been achieved in recent years for genres such as the epic (Gladiator [2000]), disaster (Titanic [1997]), and fantasy (The Lord of the Rings [2001-03]) genres. Despite this, it is the computer-effects artists who continue to bring the science to these fictions.                

There is a long-standing debate within genre studies over what films count as legitimate examples of film sf, as opposed to horror or fantasy, with some critics arguing that there is no legitimate science fiction in the cinema at all. As the films I will be discussing are examples of post-classical cinema and blockbuster productions, with budgets to sustain the expense of computer-generated special effects, they are by their very nature hybrid films. They are produced with the intention of crossing genre boundaries with the hope that this will broaden their appeal to a wide range of audiences and thus secure the level of box office intake that is necessary to make a film a blockbuster.

In this article, I will demonstrate that the use of computer imagery specifically transforms genres such as horror, fantasy, and the martial arts film into a form of hybridized science fiction. I will trace how sf films have contributed to the development of computer-generated effects and then consider how the genre has responded to the domestication of the technology by turning away from brave new worlds to explore the new frontier for CGI, the representation of the body. I will therefore not focus on the spectacular nature of these effects but rather on how the infinite malleability of digital technology has extended our understanding of the “indexicality” of the image (as discussed by Laura Mulvey and Philip Rosen) by challenging and reshaping our conception of the body and its boundaries. While Brooks Landon once predicted a future for science fiction in which the media offers the “realization rather than just the representation of SF narrative” (The Aesthetics of Ambivalence xxv), the real developments and applications of computer technologies within film production at the turn of the twenty-first century have increasingly led to a convergence between “realization” and “representation.” This convergence is located within this reconception of the body both on-screen and off, as the traditional sf cyborg has escaped the confines of the representational space and entered the real world of film production, where actor and computer technology are increasingly being merged into a new form of digital/human hybrid.2

The Development of CGI through Science Fiction. A computer-generated image can either be a pre-existing image that has been scanned into a computer or a wholly animated image drawn directly within the computer with specially designed software (Netzley 47). Once in the computer the image can be altered or manipulated to suit the needs of the desired effect, and then later combined with the live-action footage and rescanned back onto film. It has taken twenty-five years of experimentation and development for the CG image to achieve the degree of realism and malleability that we expect from contemporary cinema.

Lev Manovich, in his discussion of the language of new media and computer technology, has, however, demonstrated that realism in the cinema is a complex concept that has had numerous practical applications in the development and application of computer-generated imagery. As he explains, the history of cinema has consistently perpetuated the myth of “capturing” reality through the technology’s photographic properties and as a result the history of realism in the cinema is “one of addition,” in which each new technology—such as sound, panchromatic stock, and color—is presented as offering enhanced realism to the photographic image and emphasizing just how “unrealistic” previous images were (186).3 This movement towards increased realism was, he argues, not a linear progression but a process of substitution as certain techniques took priority over others. With developments in CGI, however, the concept of realism takes on new meanings. According to Manovich, “achieving synthetic realism means attaining two goals—the simulation of the codes of traditional cinematography and the simulation of the perceptual properties of real life objects and environments” (191-92). In other words, the computer-generated images must look “real”—i.e., must reproduce the necessary proportions and textures of the original object—but they must also look as if they were filmed with a “real” camera, therefore maintaining certain photographic properties such as motion blurring, depth of focus, and the grain of the film stock. As Manovich argues, “although we normally think that synthetic photographs produced with computer graphics are inferior to real photographs, in fact, they are too perfect. But beyond that we can also say that, paradoxically, they are also too “real” (202). With the increasing implementation of CGI in cinema, the development of the technology required an engagement with a language of “realisms” that acknowledged the individual characteristics of vision and perception. The sf genre, a genre of imagined realities, became the locus through which the technology could develop and increasingly attain these realisms.  

Initially in the 1970s, computers were used primarily as tools, offering alternatives to traditional methods of effects because they were less expensive. In 1979, Ridley Scott used a computer to create all the images on the bridge’s computer terminals on the spaceship Nostromo in Alien. This was a single effect that could have been achieved by alternative means but the filmmakers realized that it was easier to use a computer. Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (1982) featured one of the earliest entirely computer-generated sequences in a feature film. The Genesis sequence is a simulation of the implementation and effect of a device designed to create new worlds from dead ones, “life from lifelessness.” Since the sequence is presented as a computer simulation, the film was able to showcase the spectacle of this new FX technology without concerning itself with issues of realism: the technology, while three-dimensional, still gave the impression of animation. In the same year, Walt Disney Studios released their computer-generated extravaganza Tron (1982). Set within a computer game, the film features sixteen minutes of completely computer-generated imagery. It was supposed to contain much more, but due to the prohibitive costs and the limitations of the technology at this time, traditional animation methods were used throughout much of the film to create the look of a computer game. In each of these cases computers were used to reproduce the effects and images supposedly generated within the narrative by computers.                

It was the film The Abyss (1989) that first managed to use CGI to create an artificial entity that seemed seamlessly to exist within the “real” (represented) world. In this sequence, a tentacle made exclusively from water emerges from the diving pool of an underwater mining installation and explores the rig until finally finding its human residents. The tentacle moves effortlessly through the space and stops to interact with the crew, making gestures and faces, and reflecting back the images that surround it. Robin Baker explains that

it took ILM [Industrial Light and Magic] six months of intensive work and constant checking with the director on the form and realism required for The Abyss before its magnificent pod became a convincing animated object, reflecting the interior of the rig through which it passed. Cameron wanted the surface of the pod to be constantly undulating like the surface of a swimming pool. (39-40) 

ILM’s team of special effects technicians took what they had accomplished in The Abyss and put it to the more challenging task of developing the new, more sophisticated terminator, the T-1000, in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). No longer simply the fusion of flesh and a metal endo-skeleton, the new terminator was supposedly made of liquid metal able to transform from one shape to another. The differences between the two cyborgs capture the shift in FX technology from the industrial special make-up and mechanical effects of the T-800, achieved through prosthetics and animatronics, to the post-industrial digital imaging and computer graphics of the T-1000. As with The Abyss, the challenge in using digital effects in Terminator 2 (T2) was to enable the T-1000 effortlessly to blend with the real world and believably to transform from one form to another. While the first terminator was able to mimic voices when necessary, this terminator, played by the actor Robert Patrick, was able to copy any living tissue with which he came  into contact as well as transforming parts of his body into simple but deadly weapons. The transformations of Patrick’s body were achieved through a combination of digital alterations to previously filmed images (such as when the T-1000 walks through the metal bars of an asylum ward by seeming to dissolve through the metal) and also through computer-generated graphics (such as when the T-1000 emerges from a fiery explosion in a glistening metallic state before returning to his borrowed human appearance). To achieve most of these transformations

a new software technique called “morph” was used which allows a very smooth transition between one form and another so that it looks continuous, making it impossible to detect where the boundary of one character finishes and the other begins. It was necessary to keep the transition realistic so that when the human actor took over, and T-1000 became the police officer, it appeared convincing. To do this the morph software provides a cross dissolve allowing the key features—nose, eyes, and ears—to stay in the same locations as the transformation takes place. (Baker 40)

The computer technology proved incredibly malleable at smoothly “morphing” from one live-action image to another, suggesting a seamless and painless transformation. While reminiscent of the optical transformations of the Universal Wolfman films of the 1940s, morphing lends the image an unprecedented degree of realism, as the two images are seamlessly merged at the point of transition. In this case the “more real than real” quality of the CGI significantly enhanced the representation of the T-1000 in his natural, liquid-metal state. Here the shiny and fluid quality of the animation was used to emphasize the futuristic and strange quality of this new form of cyborg. The technology is designed to make the CGI character blend within the live-action footage, while also making him stand out within the fictional world of the narrative.                

In addition to making the impossible possible through the photo-realistic quality of these transformations (or, in the case of The Abyss, the alien effects), these sequences introduced to the sf film an increased self-awareness of the wonders of this new technology, which has increasingly been built into the texts themselves. As Michele Pierson explains, the films provide a narrative space within which to gaze in awe at the magic of the effect:

sequences featuring CGI commonly exhibit a mode of spectatorial address that—with its tableau-style framing, longer takes, and strategic intercutting between shots of the computer-generated object and reaction shots of characters—solicits an attentive and even contemplative viewing of the computer-generated image. (124)

In The Abyss the crew of the oil rig stare in wonder at the beauty of the water tentacle, while Sarah Connor freezes in horror as she sees the new terminator walk through the bars that separate it from her and her son in T2. The best example of this moment of spectatorial address, however, takes place in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park (1993), the first film to use CG effects to create live creatures rather than aliens or machines. In this film the link between the science-content of the film and the technological effect is clearly established in the first scene to display the CGI dinosaurs. The film tells the story of scientists who have used developments in genetic cloning to clone dinosaurs from dino-dna found in fossilized mosquitoes. The film uses developments in CGI technology to bring the dinosaurs to life on the screen in full view, realistically portrayed in three-dimensional space. The moment when palaeontologists Alan Grant and Elly Saddler arrive on the island and see their first “real” dinosaur is designed to instruct the audience in how to respond to this wondrous sight. The dinosaurs are withheld for the first forty seconds of the scene and instead we see repeated shots of Alan and Elly turning, looking up, and staring in wonder at what is out frame. The emphasis in these shots is on the amazement on their faces, enhanced by the camera moving into close-ups of each of them as they look beyond the camera.                

That we don’t simply cut to the scientists’ points of view, but rather to a long shot of the dinosaurs with the human characters in the frame, demonstrates that the wonder of the moment is not simply the narrative revelation of living dinosaurs but the amazing special effects that have produced a realistic, three-dimensional, computer-generated image of a dinosaur smoothly integrated into the live-action shot of the actors. This is summed up by Alan’s remark as he looks up and says in astonishment, “that’s a dinosaur.” While he is shocked to find himself standing next to a living fossil, the audience is equally shocked to see him standing next to such a creature. This is a classic moment of the effect and the narrative merging into one spectacular gestalt. While the story goes on to criticize the recklessness of modern science’s creation of dinosaurs, the film allows the audience to enjoy the wonder and thrills associated with this recklessness. This film, however, demonstrates another key element of modern special effects, which is the short-lived nature of that wonder at the novel and the spectacular. While FX artists continued to outdo the realism of the dinosaur effects in the film’s two sequels, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997) and Jurassic Park 3 (2001),that first moment of seeing a dinosaur achieved with such realism and romanticism can never be repeated.                

While Jurassic Park challenged FX artists to create realistic living creatures, The Matrix (1999) gave them the opportunity to experiment with computerized methods to manipulate and control the representation of space and time. The film tells a dystopian narrative in which the world as we know it is revealed to be a virtual reality (the Matrix) maintained by a computer program, while the real world is an apocalyptic landscape in which the last free humans are at war with the machines they have created. To construct these two distinct realities, FX technicians created numerous physical and digital effects, but where the film broke new ground was in its representation of the virtual world in which motion can be controlled by the mind.                

When in the Matrix, the hero Neo and his fellow freedom fighters have to be able to defy the laws of nature. To achieve this, visual effects supervisor John Gaeta invented bullet-time, a form of virtual camera technology. Bullet time is created through filming an actor at normal speed and scanning the footage into a computer so the director and FX supervisors can work out the digital camera movement for the scene. Then a series of laser-calibrated still cameras are placed in the studio along the line of the planned camera movement and the action is photographed by each of the still cameras, scanned into the computer, and animated at the required speed (Netzley 142-43). In this manner the image can be slowed down or sped up in the computer to suggest that the characters are able to defy the laws of physics, while the camera “appears to move in ways that a physical camera could not” (John Gaeta, qtd. in Fordham, “Neo-Realism” 85). The result of their experiments with this new virtual technology were the impressive martial arts sequences in which Neo bends the laws of nature to his will as he slows down time, flies through the air and dodges bullets.                

While many critics praised the film for its cunning combination of spectacular action with a metaphysical narrative exploring the dehumanizing threat of technology, it was ultimately upon the quality and innovation of the special effects that the reviews focused. Nicola Godwin points out that “what makes it [The Matrix] extraordinary are the sheer volume of those effects, and the efforts of its creators to generate entirely new ones” (10), while Jonathan Romney argues that what distinguishes the effects is not simply the spectacle but how they both suggest and subvert notions of illusion and reality (“Cause” 38-39). Even Alexander Walker, who bemoans what he sees as the film’s lack of meaning, gives credit to the film’s “visual and visceral exhibitionism”—so much so that while he admits to being impressed, he suggests that the film’s success will lead to commercial imitation (29). Walker was quite right: these effects were immediately parodied and copied by other genre films without the sf narrative, including Scary Movie (2000), Charlie’s Angels (2000),and even the television series Angel (1999-2004). Shrek (2001)further parodies The Matrix by mimicking its effects through computer animation when Princess Fiona fights off her attackers, freezing in mid-air as the virtual camera swivels around the action before she delivers her final kicks. The effect thus changed from being cutting-edge technology to being overly familiar and the subject of humorous pastiche.                

The success of The Matrix did, however, raise the standard for what was expected of the film’s sequels, The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003). The filmmakers and their effects teams faced the challenge of exceeding their previous achievements. Over 2000 visual effects were planned across the two films, drastically exceeding the 400 effects shots in the original (Fordham, “Neo-Realism” 85). Yet despite the technical virtuosity of both sequels, they did not generate the same level of excitement. While critics who both liked and disliked The Matrix acknowledged the significance of the film’s technical achievements, the reviewers’ response to the sequels suggests that this time the effects were not enough. James Veriere points out that since “so many films have already copied the original … the sequel [The Matrix Reloaded] seems dated” (qtd in Gibbons 11), while Ty Burr argues that “the thrill isn’t gone from the sequel, but the surprise is” (qtd in Gibbons 11). More than simply suffering from over-familiarity to the technology, some reviews expressed weariness at the efforts to exceed the effects of the previous film. Philip Strick suggests that while the action scenes in The Matrix Reloaded are “enthralling to watch for their technical ingenuity[, they] cannot quite prevent a certain fatigue by the time the Architect reveals it has all happened five times already” (53). Kate Stables describes the martial arts scenes in The Matrix Revolutions as being “disconcertingly bloated with CGI” (55). In this case the special effects could not achieve the excitement and tension that were such an indelible part of The Matrix.                

Between the release of The Matrix in 1999 and its sequels in 2003, the public excitement surrounding computer FX had moved to fantasy with the release of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003). And it wasn’t the spectacle of the Mines of Moria or the vast Orc armies fighting in the Battle at Helm’s Deep that captured the most public and critical attention, but rather the sadly emaciated and shrivelled body of Gollum, the former ring-bearer. The superhuman antics of Neo flying around the world and fighting a hundred Agent Smiths were no match for the pathos of a digitally-created Gollum diving for fish while singing a song in the pond of Osgiliath.

Science Fiction and the CG-Body. With computer-generated effects increasingly being used by other genres to convey different forms of spectacle, the sf film has turned toward its own limitations to form the subject of its fictions, especially in terms of the representation and manipulation of the body. Barry Keith Grant argues that the body is not conventionally the source of inspiration for science fiction, which is generally pre-occupied with the mind and its cognitive wonders, but is instead the terrain of the horror genre (20). Furthermore, Alex Proyas, director of I, Robot (2004), claims that “CG is often unconvincing when it comes to creating flesh and blood creatures,” suggesting that the representation of the body has been one of the most difficult challenges facing computer FX artists (qtd in Duncan 96). While the smooth and sleek surfaces of the water tentacle or the T-1000 are easily created through computer imaging, natural mannerisms and the textured features of human skin have been most difficult to recreate realistically.                

The challenge to overcome these limitations has fueled recent advances in computer-generated images, once again demonstrating an interdependent relationship between FX technology and science fiction. Sf films such as AI (2001), Minority Report (2002), and I, Robot have turned their futuristic narratives away from outer space and toward the imbrication of humanity and technology. This is not a new priority within science fiction, of course. Films such as Metropolis, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Alien (1979), The Terminator (1984), and Total Recall (1990) have previously engaged with these themes; Minority Report and I, Robot, both loosely based on classic sf stories by Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov respectively, demonstrate that these are long-standing concerns of the sf literary genre. The use of computer-generated technologies within these films, however, has relocated the emphasis from society to the body itself.                

Digital effects are able to manipulate the representation of the body in such a way that they visually embody the fusion of human tissue with technological hardware, enabling the human body to be distorted beyond its physical capabilities. Mary Ann Doane has suggested that traditionally the body has been represented as finite and absolute, a simple empirical fact (182). This reading of the body is supported by contemporary obsessions in popular culture with forensic pathology, as demonstrated by the television series CSI (2000-present), the serial killer films Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Seven (1995), and the novels of Patricia Cornwell, all of which present the corpse as a source of physical evidence. As Maria Angel argues, the modern view of anatomy is to see the “opened body replac[ing] the opened book as the source of anatomical knowledge” (29). She explains that “this modern fascination with the contortions and folds of things, their hidden depths and structures, corresponds to an epistemological obsession with hidden interiors in which knowledge is sought and from which knowledge can be withdrawn” (35).                

In the 1980s the horror genre exploited contemporary anxieties about maintaining the sanctity of the body by using special make-up effects to rupture its boundaries in such films as Alien, An American Werewolf in London (1981), The Thing (1982), and The Fly (1986),and to represent the body as an enigma full of unanswered questions about its constitution and health rather than as an empirical resource. Today science fiction film uses digital technology not to rupture the boundaries of the body but rather to stretch and extend the body beyond its usual limits. It also serves to make the invisible visible. The television series CSI, which treats the body as a source of evidence, uses digital technology to create a virtual penetration of the skin’s surface to envision the results of trauma on the internal organs. Known as the “CSI Shot,” these effects are part of the series’ strategy for visual exposition. According to associate producer Brad Tenenbaum, “[we need to] explain what the bullet does when it strikes someone’s body. We show and tell at the same time” (qtd in Hamit 101). This effect, originated for Three Kings (1999) but made familiar by CSI, has since been borrowed and parodied in the action film Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003). Even the vampire-vs.-werewolf movie Underworld (2003) uses the same effect to show the transformation of man into werewolf from the inside as bones and tissue shift and reshape themselves. Blade Trinity (2004) uses the effect to show the entry of a virus into Dracula’s blood system: the virtual camera follows the virus as it races toward his heart and then, once mixed with his blood, as it exits his body and circulates through the air, infecting all of the other vampires.                

Hollow Man, Paul Verhoeven’s contemporary version of The Invisible Man (1933), does more than simply offer an internal glimpse of the body, but uses the process of making a man invisible to reveal its inner workings and mechanics, layer by layer, as the character Sebastian Caine is made to disappear. When approaching the film, the director and his team of visual-effects artists wanted to present this process as it had never been seen before and without giving in to the gimmicks of earlier films. This meant that they were required to push the boundaries of computer effects, mirroring the efforts of the on-screen team of scientists—each trying to find a way to make a man invisible. The analogy between the film scientists and their effects technicians is strengthened by the fact that the technicians were required to study anatomy, analyze artistic and medical illustrations, and even witness human dissections in order to understand every layer of the body and its function (Shay 108). Furthermore, in order to create their computer-generated version of Sebastian, they had to study, measure, scan, photograph, and motion-test the actor Kevin Bacon, in order to use his body as “reference data” upon which to base their CGI Sebastian during the various stages of his dissolution (Shay 112). The result was a spectacular transformation: as the serum begins to take effect, Sebastian’s body goes into convulsions as portions of his skin seemingly burn away, revealing the muscles and veins beneath; then, as he continues to contort and strain, his muscles and ligaments fade, revealing the body’s organs and then eventually its skeleton before it finally fades into nothingness. The convulsions not only convey the intense physicality of the process but also provide an opportunity for the camera to explore his body in motion from every angle. Through digital technology the threshold of the body can now be crossed to gain access to the anatomical mysteries hidden within.                

Digital technology is, however, not only used to traverse bodily boundaries but to extend and distort them. What is unsettling about the new technology is the manner in which it can take an indexical image and effortlessly transform and reshape it in ways far beyond the capabilities of photographic manipulation. Indexicality, a subject addressed in the works of André Bazin, Roland Barthes, and more recently Laura Mulvey, is a sign produced by “the ‘thing’ it represents” such as a fingerprint, a shadow or a photograph (Mulvey, “Index” 141). While recognizing to varying degrees that the photographic image can be manipulated, each of these theorists sees in the photograph both a record of the subject being photographed (what Mulvey calls its “here and now-ness”) and the moment the photo was taken suspended in time, its “there and then-ness” (“Death”). As Mulvey explains, “when rays of light inscribe an object’s image onto photosensitive paper at a particular moment, they record the object’s present but they also inscribe that moment of time, henceforth suspended” (“Index” 142).                

Digital technology, however, does not necessarily require a pro-filmic referent; it can be a sign that bears no physical relationship to the “thing” it represents and, as a result, is often interpreted as being opposed to indexicality. As Philip Rosen points out, however, “digital information and images can [and often do] have indexical origins, the digital often appropriates or conveys indexical images, and it is common for the digital image to retain compositional forms associated with indexicality”—either an indexical image scanned into the computer or the recorded data that is subsequently interpreted by the computer and presented as an image (314). What this does is introduce to the indexical image the “infinite manipulabili­ty” that is available within the digital domain, as Jonathan Romney explains:

Rather than being a simple “preservation” of life, digital imagery aspires to be something more—its crystallisation, its liquefaction. It has the mystique of an alchemical process in which all matter, transmogrified through the medium of light, can become other matter in which flesh becomes unstable, or passes through various liquid, metallic or crystalline avatars. Digital imagery may as a rule incline to hyper-realism, but to hyper-realism at its most unstable. Any form, however complete, can morph into another; there’s no reason why the most convincingly solid object, or indeed the whole screen, shouldn’t suddenly dissolve into a shower of its constituent pixels. (“Million” 210)

According to Mulvey, “the cinema literally transforms the living human body into its inorganic replica. Once projected, these static images then became animated, reproducing the living actions once recorded by the camera” (“Death”). Digital technology, however, creates something like-but-more-than its indexical referent, released from this suspension in time. When applied to the human frame, this technology offers the potential for a completely new representation that challenges the conventional perception of the body as absolute and finite and the photographic image of the body as fixed. Where photography and cinematography can be seen as creating ghosts, images of the dead trapped in time, digital technology creates cyborgs, images that are a combination of their living referent and the technology that has reinterpreted them, no longer forced to repeat their motions as recorded but instead programmed to perform entirely new functions. The cinema has therefore been able to use the technology to redefine our perception of the body for the cyber-age and to create a new form of science fiction. Numerous sf films in recent years have offered fresh visions of the body, altered both internally and externally by its relationship to technology and conveyed through the processes of digital FX, creating cinematic cyborgs.                

Donna Haraway has famously defined the cyborg as “a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction”; the cyborg in fiction, she argues, serves to map “our social and bodily reality” (158). Hassan Melehy further argues that the cyborg provides, “in the destabilization of the organic structure of the human being, a site for different sorts of production, reproduction, and transformation that strongly challenge the age-old notion of the human as both creator and procreator” (315). By these definitions cyborgs represent more than simply the fusion of flesh and metal; they offer a space in which the interdependence of humanity and technology can be explored and, more significantly, deconstructed. The cyborg body acts as a microcosm for the ways in which humanity is, as Jennifer González suggests, “caught in the process of transformation” as it is constantly being reinvented through technology (540). Furthermore, her argument that “photomontage has served as a particularly appropriate medium for the visual exploration of cyborgs” since “[i]t allows apparently ‘real’ or at least indexically grounded representations of body parts, objects and spaces to be rearranged and to function as fantastic environments or corporal mutations” (544), equally applies to CG imagery, which can also take an indexical image and reshape it.                

In Minority Report, for instance, digital technology is used to represent a technological connection between humanity and its environment through the integration of a range of complex digital imagery with live-action footage. Set in the near future, the film tells the story of cybernetic psychics whose predictions of murder are recorded and analyzed by police officers attempting to prevent the crime. The process of analyzing their visions—known as “scrubbing” and based on MIT predictions for a future of “global graphic language and gestural recognition” (Fordham, “Future” 41)—involves the police officer breaking down the images into elements and analyzing and manipulating them individually on transparent screens through precise hand movements. This effect was achieved through the production of seventy layers of computer-generated images, each being made to move independently and seemingly in response to Tom Cruise’s well choreographed gestures. Here the process of police investigation has been reduced to a form of computerized image analysis that relies on the investigator’s physical attunement to the technology. Furthermore, society’s dependence on computer technology, from grocery store scanners to the Internet, is taken to its logical extreme by having each member of society hooked into a computerized system that reads identity through retina scans that serve as identity cards and security passes, as well as facilitating direct advertising. Everywhere they go, the inhabitants of this world are bombarded by holographic commercials, similar to online pop-up ads, which respond to retina scans with personalized promotions. These promotions are computer-generated images inserted to create a panoramic mise-en-scène, demonstrating how the over-stimulation of the information age has spilled over from the electronic screen into everyday life, creating a thoroughly cybernetic society.                

While Minority Report uses CGI to present a futuristic world based on human and machine hybridity, other films use the digital manipulation of photographic images of the human body to explore the physicality of cyborgs. Steven Spiel­berg’s AI, a film about a world split between Organics and Mechas (human and machines), features numerous sequences in which images of humanity are undermined by their technological manipulation. Originally developed by Stanley Kubrick (who debated for years over whether CGI or puppetry would be better suited to create the film’s main character, a robot boy named David), the film was taken over by Steven Spielberg, who decided to use a real child actor combined with technological enhancements to make him seem more robotic (Fordham, “Mecha” 70). This mixture of human actor with computerized FX enabled the technicians to showcase the mechanization of the body and to deconstruct digitally what it means to be human.                

For instance, David quite humanly responds to childish taunting that he is only a robot and so cannot eat by stuffing his mouth full of spinach, resulting in a malfunction. The flesh on the left side of his face begins to droop, revealing the mechanism beneath. This effect was achieved by scanning the image of the actor’s face into a computer so that the skin around his eye and mouth could be digitally warped, while creating a synthetic facial structure within the computer that was applied to the image of the actor’s face. There are numerous such instances within the film that deliberately highlight the breakdown of the real human form to reveal the mechanisms within. The film begins with a demonstration of state-of-the-art robotics, showing the face of a woman being opened up to reveal internal machinery. Here the indexical image of the actor is digitally altered to make it appear to crank up like a “garage door” (Scott Farrar, qtd in Fordham, “Mecha” 69). Later, David comes across a group of robots scrounging through a junkyard looking for replacements parts. These robots are a motley crew of decimated androids created through a combination of make-up, animatronics, and digital effects. The most notable digital effects show robots that are missing substantial chunks of their flesh, revealing only the mechanics beneath; one robot has had the entire left side of his face stripped down to its most basic mechanical elements, while another has been left with only her faceplate. From the front she looks normal, but when she turns to the side we see only the remnants of an internal mechanism and what remains of her ponytail—the substance of the human head has been digitally erased. The incompleteness of the bodies in this sequence undermines the conception of the human as physically whole and presents a new form of existence that is not only a collage of flesh and metal but also a curious mix of hybrid mechanical parts.

In Robert Zemeckis’s Contact (1997), the cyborg does not exist within the narrative but rather is a product of the film’s production. The CGI here is used to question human perception by digitally altering or enhancing virtually every shot, including the image of the actress Jodie Foster, in order to evoke her character’s perceptual experience of traveling through space (Craig 162). Initially, as Ellie Arroway (Foster) begins her journey to the Vega star system, the lights and colors of space are digitally reflected onto the contours of her face. As the journey accelerates, the dislocation of time and space caused by such speeds is shown through the appearance of a ghostly echo of her face that emerges and stretches beyond the boundaries of her body. Later, as she looks out at a celestial event, her image is digitally altered to create a surreal ripple effect, as if her countenance were being sculpted and reformed before the camera. The audience is looking at an image of the actress reinterpreted through computer technology. The creation of such an effect suggests a genuine fusion between the human actor and digital technology to produce an on-screen cyborg.                

The increasing presence of such cyborgs within popular cinema has gradually transformed other genres into a curious hybrid of the sf film. The bodies of actors can now be altered, extended, or made to perform in ways that defy the laws of nature, fusing the body with filmmaking technologies. One genre that has been transformed is the martial arts film, particularly the kung-fu movie. According to Leon Hunt, the genre has traditionally been obsessed with issues of authenticity and the performing body, emphasizing the actual skills of such artists as Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan (22). With the advent of new technologies, however, not only are actors such as Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Drew Barrymore, and Cameron Diaz able to perform kung fu on-screen, they are able to transcend the limitations of the performing body and do the impossible. In The Matrix, Trinity is able to defy gravity and hover in the air before delivering her fatal kicks, because actress Carrie-Anne Moss was filmed performing the real-time kicks through the process of bullet time, which slowed her movements down. This technological intervention, an extension of existing practices of wirework and cinematic editing, transforms the discourse of the genre away from the “real performing body” to the “hyper-real” performing body. As Leon Hunt argues, “martial arts films have had to respond to this logic, where the ‘real’ has been refashioned by hypermedia” (187).                

It is not that the fight scenes are not real (in fact, most of these films emphasize that the actors have been specially trained in martial arts and perform all their own stunts), but rather that they are technologically enhanced. This is best demonstrated in the American films of “real” martial artist Jet Li (Romeo Must Die [2000], Kiss of the Dragon [2001], The One [2001]), who has fully embraced the technologies through which his real skill is presented hyperbolically on screen. For instance, in the sf film The One—a futuristic narrative about parallel universes and a character’s desire to destroy his alternate selves in order to absorb their energy—Li’s strength, speed, and agility are enhanced exponentially with each life his character absorbs. This is represented through computer-generated manipulation to extend his real body movements beyond his natural abilities. In a confrontation with the police, his leaps defy gravity, his kicks stretch beyond his body span, and his agility enables him to twist and bend beyond his limits. Through this technological mediation, the martial arts film has been transformed into a hybrid sf film both narratively and aesthetically.                

In the Blade trilogy (Blade [1998], Blade II [2002], Blade Trinity [2004]), computer-generated effects are used to transform the vampire genre by portraying the extension of the vampire body beyond its most basic element, the reanimated corpse, into a new form of being that seems less mystical than quasi-scientific. While not conventionally science fiction, the Blade films relocate the vampire into a contemporary world where vampirism is no longer a product of folklore and superstition. John Jordan argues that Blade, a half-vampire/half-human who uses modern technology to hunt vampires and a scientifically-developed serum to suppress his own bloodlust, embodies the modern cyborg. He “represent[s] a mystical figure surrounded internally and externally by science. Even Blade’s name refers both to him as a person and to his signature weapon—a specially crafted sword he carries on his back—blurring the boundary where the body ends and the weapon begins” (10). Throughout the films, however, the vampires are themselves presented as products and/or users of science and technology. They are variously described as a virus, disease, genetic mutation, experiment, or genetically engineered super-race. The weapons that destroy them are no longer religious artifacts like the crucifix, holy water, or holy communion, but silver-nitrate bullets, ultra-violet lamps, grenades, bombs, an anticoagulant super-agent, and a biological weapon called “Daystar.” The vampires themselves use science and technology: in Blade, Deacon Frost uses a computer program to decrypt an ancient vampire prophecy, while in Blade 2, a superior “Reaper” strain of vampires, genetically engineered to transcend traditional undead weaknesses, turns on its creators. Finally, in Blade Trinity old and new vampire mythologies merge when a group of contemporary vampires locate the whereabouts of the super vampire, Drake (Dracula), whose DNA they want to study in order to improve their own genetic constitution.  

This reconception of the vampires through the language of biological science is enhanced by their visual reinvention through computer-generated effects. In each film, CG effects are used to embody the vampires’ attempts to extend the limits of their bodies. In Blade, Deacon Frost uses an elaborate ritual to invoke a vampire deity, La Magra the Blood God. While the ritual is mystical in origin, its effect is achieved through computer-generated imagery: Frost is transformed into La Magra, but not on the surface; he still looks like Frost, but internally he has changed, as becomes apparent when Blade bisects him with his sword. Instead of bursting into dust like every vampire before him, Frost’s blood corpuscles and tissue reshape themselves in one fluid motion. Frost is no longer confined by the limitations and boundaries of his body but rather has been redefined by the endless computational possibilities of CGI. In Blade 2, Nomak, patient-zero of the Reaper strain, is stronger, faster, and more agile than traditional vampires, while also possessing a more powerful bite and an augmented bone structure that protects his heart from being staked. Like Blade, Nomak has been redefined both internally and externally by technoscience. Nomak’s cyborg nature is conveyed through digital technology that creates exaggerated and “hyper-real” forms of movement, such as crawling up walls, leaping across rooms, and moving at accelerated speeds, all of which would be impossible without the use of CGI to digitally manipulate the movements of the actor.                

In Blade Trinity, CGI is used to depict Drake, a genetically purified vampire who, much like the T-1000 in Terminator 2, is able to transform himself into anyone with whom he comes into contact, an effect achieved through morphing one image into the next. His vampiric form itself appears to be cybernetic in that his red, scale-like flesh is stretched around a kind of organic body armor; morphing technology depicts his vampire face concealed beneath his human visage, pushing out from within. Like the shot of Jodie Foster in Contact, Drake’s face is physically reinterpreted by the technology, but in this case to portray the character as a cybernetic fusion of human and monster, flesh and technology.                

While these films begin with the indexical image of an actor manipulated through technology, more recent films have taken that fusion one step further by digitally recording and translating the human performance into digital code and recreating the performance within the computer. Donna Haraway argues that communications systems and biotechnologies have made all of humanity into cyborgs, translating “our own bodies” into code (mathematical, genetic, etc.) (107). This translation of humanity into code is precisely what is achieved when the specifics of the human form are digitally recorded through motion capture to create an “artificial” animated human in the computer. The most complex version of this cinematic cyborg was used to create Gollum for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The way this character is described in the novel—physically twisted, emaciated, wretched, walking on all fours, and crawling up and down cliff faces—made it impossible to achieve with a human actor, and yet the importance of the character meant that it needed to be more than a photo-realistic CG creation. It needed to give a genuine dramatic performance. As a result, the team developed the most sophisticated combination of CG animation, motion capture, rotoscoping, and actor performance yet to be achieved in cinema.                

Originally conceived as CG animation (i.e., designed purely within the computer), with actor Andy Serkis providing the voice, it was Serkis’s intensely physical performance while recording the dialogue—complete with facial expressions, hand gestures, and body motions—that made Jackson realize that the actor could provide so much more than a voice. It was decided that Serkis would be the physical model for Gollum in three key ways. He would be present on set to perform as Gollum with the other actors, to provide an animation reference for the animators as they modelled their own 3-D creature. In cases where Serkis’s performance achieved the precise intention for the scene, animators also superimposed the CG Gollum over the actor and matched his movements precisely, then painted Serkis out of the scene. Finally, motion capture was used to translate Serkis’s body into digital code to recreate his movements in the computer. This was achieved by photographing the actor wearing a specially designed suit with dots that matched up with the joints of his body; special cameras “gather[ed] the electronic data that is reflecting off of these little points” (Jackson, qtd in “Taming”). According to Remington Scott (Motion Capture Supervisor), this arrangement enabled the FX crew to create a three-dimensional representation of Serkis’s movements in the digital world, “capturing the essence of Andy” (Scott, qtd in Taming).                

The significance of these layers of techniques used to create Gollum is the degree to which the actor/character truly reflects a cyborg existence. The character is not only a fusion of flesh and machine (Serkis and the computer-animated Gollum), but the expression of a range of representational technologies. Furthermore, Gollum’s cyborg nature has been absolutely key to how the character, and its technological creation, has been received by critics and the public, who have praised both the technology and the performance. Anthony Quinn claims that Gollum lends the film “a psychological edge” (5), while Oliver Pool asks “Can Gollum Get the Precious Oscar Nod?” Elijah Wood, star of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, sums up the overall response to this technical accomplishment:

a lot of people would see it [Gollum] as this amazing digital achievement, but I know that there was so much more behind that. I mean obviously it is an incredible digital achievement and Weta’s work is some of the best I’ve ever seen, but it is also Andy because emotionally you invest because of the performance (Wood, qtd in “Taming”).

Serkis, who has enjoyed star treatment around the world thanks to a role in which he does not appear on-screen, recognizes the fusion of actor and technology in the realistic creation of his character. “I am so in awe of what the animators have done really,” he says; “they have been able to interpret my performance and give it that level of photorealism and reality” (Serkis, qtd in “Taming”). So while The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an epic of the fantasy genre, it is also a hybridized form of science fiction due to the central role played by this hyper-real cinematic cyborg.

Conclusion. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as computer technology was developing in leaps and bounds, there was an increasing concern (or aspiration) that the technology would eventually be so sophisticated as to make actors obsolete, replacing them with computer-generated performers (see Landon, Aesthetics 154). The technological developments as outlined above have, however, demonstrated that the situation is becoming more complex than this simple replacement. Actors are not obsolete but are increasingly called upon to interact with FX technology, either by performing in soundstage environments destined to be supplanted by computer-generated virtual worlds—as in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), Sin City (2005), and the recent Star Wars films (The Phantom Menace [1999], Attack of the Clones [2002],and Revenge of the Sith [2005])—or, more significantly, by having their performances technologically mediated through an enhancement of their physical bodies or through the creation of actor/computer cyborgs (e.g., Gollum or, more recently, the robots in I, Robot and the vampire brides and Mr. Hyde in Van Helsing [2004]). As Lev Manovich argues:

Live-action footage is now only raw material to be manipulated by hand—animated, combined with 3-D computer generated scenes, and painted over. The final images are constructed manually from different elements, and all the elements are either created entirely from scratch or modified by hand. (302)

As a result of this mediation, film genres have become increasingly hybridized as the new technology facilitates a rethinking of the body and transforms genres such as horror, martial arts, and fantasy into a form of science fiction.4 The interdependence of humanity and technology is seen not only in the stories projected on the screen but in the production process itself, with its creation of ever more elaborate CGI cyborgs. The very techniques of filmmaking are increasingly the science fiction of today.

                1. Lev Manovich notes that the special-effects wing of Lucasfilm, Ltd, Industrial Light and Magic, “hired the best computer scientists in the field to produce animations for special effects.” As a result, “research for the effects in such films as Start Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Return of the Jedi led to the development of important algorithms that became widely used” (194).
                2. A second form of synergy between “representation” and “realization” is of course between film and video/computer games and theme park rides. In games, one is offered “the opportunity to enter into the world of a favourite movie, to repeat the actions of its heroes or to linger and explore areas passed over too rapidly on screen” (King and Krzywinska 91), while in theme park rides, one is given the “illusion of participation” (92). The distinctions between these media have been blurred by the computer-generated effects used to create the seamless fantasy world of the film, the game, and the ride.
                3. That the notion of “capturing” reality, which has underscored much of the discussion of realism in the cinema, is a “myth” should be mentioned as the cinema has a long history, pre-CGI, of constructing an image of realism through cinematic and optical techniques, including dissolves, optical printing, rear projection, model work, blue screen, editing, animation, and sound effects. Any discussion of CGI needs to be placed within this historical context, for as Manovich explains, CGI has in many ways simply relocated these techniques from the margins of filmmaking to the center of the industrial practice (300). The sf genre did contribute to this re-centering of the technology.
                4. In fact, with the technology available, no genre remains untouched. See the use of computer-generated technology in the small-town family melodrama Pleasantville (1998); the Shakespeare adaptation Titus (1999); the musicals O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Moulin Rouge (2001), and Phantom of the Opera (2004); and the comic superhero films X-Men (2000), Spider-Man (2002), and The Fantastic Four (2005).

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Abyss, The (James Cameron, US, 1989)
Angel (TV Series, 1999-2004)
Artificial Intelligence: A.I. (Steven Spielberg, US, 2001)
Alien (Ridley Scott, UK, 1979)
American Werewolf in London, An (John Landis, US/UK, 1981)
Blade (Stephen Norrington, US, 1998)
Blade 2 (Guillermo Del Toro, US, 2002)
Blade Trinity (David S. Goyer, US, 2004)
Charlie’s Angels (McG, US, 2000)
Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (McG, US, 2003)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, US, 1977)
Contact (Robert Zemeckis, US, 1997)
CSI (TV series, 2000-Present)
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, US, 1982)
Fly, The (David Cronenberg, US, 1986)
Gladiator (Ridley Scott, US/UK, 2000)
Hollow Man (Paul Verhoeven, US, 2000)
I, Robot (Alex Proyas, US, 2004)
Incredible Shrinking Man, The (Jack Arnold, US, 1957)
Invisible Man, The (James Whale, US, 1933)
Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, US, 1993)
Jurassic Park 3 (Joe Johnston, US, 2001)
Kiss of the Dragon (Chris Nahon, US/Fr, 2001)
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, US/NZ, 2001
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, US/NZ, 2002)
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, US/NZ, 2003)
Lost World: Jurassic Park, The (Steven Spielberg, US, 1997)
Matrix, The (Andy and Larry Wachowski, US, 1999)
Matrix Reloaded, The (Andy and Larry Wachowski, US, 2003)
Matrix Revolutions, The (Andy and Larry Wachowski, US, 2003)
Metropolis (Fritz Lang, Ger, 1927)
Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, US, 2002)
One, The (James Wong, US, 2001)
The Phantom Menace (George Lucas, US, 1999)
Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas, US, 2005)
Romeo Must Die (Andrzej Bartkowiak, US, 2000)
Scary Movie (Keenen Ivory Wayans, US, 2000)
Se7en (David Fincher, US, 1995)
Shrek (Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jenson, US, 2001)
Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, US, 1991)
Sin City (Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller, US, 2005)
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Kerry Conran, US/UK/Italy, 2004)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (Robert Wise, US, 1979)
Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan (Nicholas Meyer, US, 1982)
Star Wars (George, Lucas, US, 1977)
Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, US, 2002)
Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, US, 1997)
Terminator, The (James Cameron, US, 1984)
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (James Cameron, US, 1991)
Thing, The (John Carpenter, US, 1982)
Three Kings (David O. Russell, US, 1999)
Titanic (James Cameron, US, 1997)
Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, US, 1990)
Tron (Steven Lisberger, US, 1982)
Underworld (Len Wiseman, US/UK/Hungary, 2003)
Van Helsing (Stephen Summers, US/Czech Republic, 2004)
Voyage dans la Lune, Le (Trip to the Moon) (George Méliès, Fr, 1902)

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